Monday, November 14, 2005
Stambovsky v. Ackley, 572 N.Y.S.2d 672 (NY App. Div. 1991), is the famous "haunted house" case where the buyers sought rescission because the seller failed to disclose that the house was haunted. Although I couldn't time it quite right this semester, this case would be fun to teach on or around Halloween.
Among other remarkable aspects, the court proceeds from the legally unprecendented proposition that the house was haunted as a matter of law. In support of this legal conclusion, the case cites two news articles where the seller had claimed the house was haunted. Accordingly, I had a research assistant pull one of them--Helen Herdman Ackley, Our Haunted House on the Hudson, Reader's Digest, May 1977, at 217 (unfortunately, I couldn't a copy in electronic form anywhere).
At the end of that article was a little box that read: "The Reader's Digest continues to offer $3000 for 2500-word chronicles of original experiences in the field of psychic phenomena, which can be verified through witnesses and appropriate documentation." I think this box helps explain why the court held the seller's out-of-litigation admissions against the seller. The seller had been paid $3,000 for making a "verified" claim that the house was haunted. If the seller now claimed in the litigation that the house wasn't haunted, the seller would have been caught in a $3,000 lie to Reader's Digest.
Some resources that may enhance teaching this case:
* The Kavanaugh Website. This page was authored by a person who claims to be married to a person who lived in the house. Among other things, there are several photos of the house (this one is my favorite).
* It's easy to map the location of the house (1 Laveta Place, Nyack, NY), whuch clearly shows its prime location on the Hudson River. I haven't tried to find it using Google Earth, but I assume that is now possible as well.
* Many contemporaneous stories were written about the court decisions, but one story in particular caught my attention: James Barron, Phones Ringing (Eerily?) For Nyack Spook Home, N.Y. Times, March 20, 1990, at B2 (through Westlaw, you can pull the article up at 1990 WLNR 3010114). According to this article, after the initial lower court ruling, many people called up real estate agents in the area desperate to buy the house...but only if it was, in fact, haunted. I love this anecdote because it shows that (a) people have idiosyncratic preferences, so one person's defect is another person's must-have attribute, and (b) the seller's real estate agent may have initially done a poor job marketing the house!
The court opinion makes several references to the 1984 movie Ghost Busters (with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver and others) and the associated song by Ray Parker Jr. (which was #1 on the pop charts for 3 weeks in 1984). I had a minor generational crisis when I realized that some of my students were not born when the movie and song came out, so some of the movie/song references may not be self-explanatory to the students. A few clips from the movie, or playing the song in class, might get some good laughs.